DUBAI, (Reuters) – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared an end to a long-running war with northern Shi’ite rebels that drew in neighbouring Saudi Arabia last year, according to a television interview to be aired on Friday.
But the president, under international pressure to end domestic unrest and focus his country’s fight on al Qaeda, also placed limits on an offer for dialogue with opponents in the south, scene of escalating violence with secessionists.
“We can say the war is over, not stopped or in a truce,” Saleh told Al-Arabiya in the interview, referring to the war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004. An advance tape of the interview was obtained by Reuters.
The declaration of an end to the northern war was a reversal by Sanaa, which earlier this week had complained that the northern rebels were not fully complying with a slow-going truce deal to end a conflict that has displaced 250,000 people.
Sanaa, struggling to stabilise a fractious country strategically located next door to the world’s largest oil exporter, jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional arm claimed responsibility for an attempted December attack on a U.S.-bound plane.
Western countries and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting the instability in Yemen to recruit and train militants for attacks in the region and beyond.
Analysts say the truce deal between the government and northern rebels was unlikely to last as it does not address rebel complaints of discrimination by Sanaa. Previous truces have not lasted. But Saleh said there were positive signs of the rebels’ commitment to ending the war such as removing landmines, opening roads, removing roadblocks and releasing prisoners. “These are considered positive indications to prove good intention not to return to a new war,” he said.
Yemen had said on Thursday it would free Shi’ite rebel prisoners within days under the truce deal, a day after the rebels released at least 170 government soldiers and tribesmen who fought alongside the state.
Prior to the release, Sanaa had accused the insurgents of returning to some vacated positions and refusing to hand over landmines removed from the war zone.
Saleh took a harder line on the south, limiting an offer for dialogue with opposition there. He said he would only entertain talks with pro-unity elements, not separatists.
“Dialogue is only with pro-unity elements (in the south) who have legitimate demands. But we don’t have dialogue with separatist elements,” he said, adding that talks would be done through political channels.
Yemen, located on a major shipping route at the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, had offered earlier this month to hold a dialogue with southerners and listen to their grievances.
Saleh’s offer, which was not his first, followed an escalation of violence in south Yemen.
North and South Yemen united in 1990, but many in the south — home to most of Yemen’s oil industry — complain northerners have seized resources and discriminate against them.
Security forces have come down hard on separatist protests in recent weeks, and a handful of demonstrators have been shot dead. Ensuing unrest sparked security sweeps that have netted 150-200 arrests and sparked sometimes deadly clashes.
Recent ambush-style attacks blamed on separatists, in which at least five people have died, have also raised concerns that the separatist protest movement could become an armed campaign.
Diplomats say previous talks offers by Sanaa have not been followed by action to tackle southern complaints that the government neglects the south and treats southerners unfairly, including in property disputes, jobs and pension rights.